Teaching Children to Organize Their Possessions: Five Tips for Parents
If you’d look under the children’s beds or in the playrooms of most houses, you might think there is no way to get your kids organized. Stuffed animals have a way of multiplying and covering beds and dressers, game and jigsaw puzzle pieces somehow never make it all back into the box, there’s always a treasured Lego or K’Nex creation that just can’t be cleaned up after all the hard work it took to make it. A multitude of papers come home from school each week. There are also brochures from favorite museums, special photographs, and little treasures like toy cars, special pens, old coins, pencil toppers, etc., that have a way of filling up drawers.
If you’re like most parents you’d like to find a way to control the clutter, maintain order with the toys, and get your children more involved in the process. There are several easy steps that parents can take to help children become skilled at keeping organized.
Before I tell you how to get organized, I’d like to tell you why it’s important. My children attend a Montessori nursery school. The head teacher shared with me some important reasons to teach children to organize their possessions. If you’ve ever seen a Montessori classroom, it’s full of interesting and delightful activities for children, each stored independently in its own container or on a tray. Presenting the materials in that way helps children develop strong focus and concentration skills. Each container or tray contains one discrete activity that a child can explore and master. When the child is finished using that activity, or wants to do something else, he puts it away and takes out another.
I believe this is a wonderful approach for a playroom or any area where you store children’s activities. We don’t just give children their toys or activities to keep them entertained while we make dinner. Their puzzles, pretend-play toys, coloring books and markers also teach educational skills like counting or spatial relations and even help children to develop motor skills. By encouraging children to use one activity at a time, we hope they’ll learn to master that activity, learn the needed skills and move onto harder puzzles or coloring more elaborate pictures.
This is not to say that children can’t build a nice Lego garage and then bring over all their trucks to park inside. I think that’s wonderful – those are two activities that go nicely together. We just want to organize our play areas in such a way that it encourages a child to follow through on an activity to completion, thereby gaining the skills it imparts.
Another wonderful aspect to Montessori organization is the emphasis on low key décor. The walls are not lined with overwhelming posters, letter charts, pictures of the months, and different colored bulletin boards. Instead, there are some of the children’s artworks, posted at eye level. Shelving is all at the child’s height, made of natural materials and generally in light color. The activities on the shelves really draw children’s attention instead of a distracting décor on the walls. This provides a calm environment to play and learn. Evaluate your playroom to see if you can replace loud, colorful artwork with more natural décor creating a more serene environment where your children can play.
I’d like to share some tips with you on how you can get started organizing with your children. Using the Montessori approach, and some ideas of my own, I’ve provided several tips below broken out for different age groups. To get started, begin with the steps for the age 3-5 group. These are the fundamental steps for the organizational methods I’m recommending. Once you’ve implemented the age 3-5 steps and your household has integrated them, you can go onto the next steps more easily.
Start slow and make it fun and you’ll have greater chances for success!
1. Create the environment.
Once you decide to get your kids started organizing their stuff, your first step will be to set up an organizational system and teach them how to maintain it. De-cluttering is key to making the organizational system work. Once you do it, your children’s playroom and bedrooms will be more serene and livable. To get started, choose items you will get rid of or put in storage, and which items you will keep available. Be sure to rotate your children’s toys in and out of a storage area every few months. When the newly rotated toys or puzzles appear on their shelves, it’s almost as exciting as getting new toys. Be sure to store or give away toys that your children have totally outgrown.
You’ll need to buy the organizational supplies the children will need in to keep their space tidy. Set up child-sized shelving, or even use the bottom shelves of your living room bookcases where your children’s toys will be kept. Be sure your children have a special drawer in a desk or dresser in which to keep all their small odds and ends. In-drawer organizers will help them keep those items orderly.
For children ages 3-5: Put toys that are loose (cars, doll house toys, kitchen toys, etc.) each into their own storage container. Each container should be stored on the toy shelving area you’ve created. Toys with lots of pieces can sometimes be hard for little ones to clean up themselves (Legos, Lincoln Logs). Keep these items on higher shelves so only a parent can take them down for the children to use. This should prevent a messy toy from being dumped out just before leaving for school, or some other occasion when there isn’t much time to clean up.
For children ages 6-8: These children may have lots of collections (coin, sticker, model air plane) school projects and reports, and other odds and ends they want to save. Help them organize their collections into plastic sheet protectors in loose leaf notebooks, artwork should go into an art portfolio stored on a bookshelf or desk drawer, model airplanes can go on higher up shelving in the bedroom or playroom.
For children ages 10 and up: Kids in this age group may also have a lot of papers and documents to store. Desktop and drawer organizers are essential. A file cabinet may even be in order if your child really likes to save his reports and certificates of achievement. Bookshelves for long chapter books, photo albums and school text books will also be important.
2. Set Rules.
Many families allow no more than one toy out at a time. This is mostly to ensure parents don’t face a clean-up nightmare and makes it manageable for children to be responsible for the own mess. Just as in a Montessori class, you will help your children maintain playroom organization by insisting that the first activity must be cleaned up before another activity can be taken out. Set a regular cleanup period required before coming to the next activity, say eating dinner or starting homework. If dinner time is always at 6:00, then cleanup starts at 5:45 each day. Stick to this rule and your children will eventually anticipate the clean up period. They will come to learn that 5:40 is not a smart time to start a major art project or 200 piece puzzle.
Ages 3-5: How many times have you seen your preschoolers halfway finish a puzzle, then build a house out of blocks, and then get caught up coloring before they ever even finished using or cleaning up any of those activities? The one-toy-at-a-time rule will help children gain a bit of focus and concentration by completing one activity before being distracted by another.
Ages 6-8: Sometimes children this age work for hours on one special creation, say an Erector Set robot or massive Lego spaceship. It’s emotionally hard to clean up something that took so much time and effort to build. Create a space where one extra-special creation can be stored. If a child wants to make or save another amazing creation, then the first one must be dismantled and put away before starting another.
Ages 10 and up: Older children may have more elaborate activities: quilting or sewing, building models, scrapbooking, etc. Give them a large storage bin to keep materials, and works-in-progress, so they don’t have to stay out on the dining room table until a weeks-long school or hobby project is completed.
3. A place for everything and everything in its place.
As you and your children create storage areas for your toys and activities, be sure you stick to your plan. You may want to agree that the doll house toys should always be stored in your daughter’s room, with the doll house, unless you and she agree otherwise. Markers, crayons, glue and scissors are always be stored where the children do their art projects. Whatever you decide, stick with it. Consolidate these items from the playroom, children’s desks, and kitchen drawers and keep them in the location you allow the children to color. All materials should be put away exactly where they’re kept so ready to use on the next occasion.
Ages 3-5: Teach these little ones to put their toys, books and shoes, for example, in the same spot every day. If you invoke this rule now, you will have more success applying it when children are old enough and have more things for which to be responsible. Show them a spot in the closet or mud-room where shoes are always kept. Make sure books are always returned back to the proper shelf.
Ages 6-8: These children can put away their clean laundry in the proper drawers and closet spaces, put away their back-pack and coat after school, put dirty laundry in a hamper each day, and hang up their bath towels after a shower. If you see something out of order, it will be easy for a child to fix because he knows where everything goes.
Ages 10 and up: Sometimes a lack of responsibility manifests during these preteen, ‘tween and teen years. If a child has a place to put her house keys, iPod or graphing calculator each day, there is less chance that these items will get lost.
4. Organizational accessories
Containers and storage accessories are critical to managing clutter. From adorable woven baskets to stacking, plastic lidded containers, these items will help children keep their toys and personal items together. If you will need a lot of storage containers then I would opt for rectangular, lidded one that can stack one on top of another. A decorative bulletin board is in the bedroom is a great place for children to keep special photos, ticket stubs from professional sports games, cute pins, a favorite sketch and more.
Ages 3-5: Get some containers this age children can open and close themselves, and some that only parents are nimble enough to open. You’ll want different size containers: small for markers and scissors and larger ones to fit large sets: toy dishes, blocks, train set, etc. You may want to tape a photograph of each toy on the side of its container so your kids will remember where the toy goes when they’re finished.
Ages 6-8: At this age range children are often learning to organize their time and keep track of activities and responsibilities. A wall chart or large desk-top calendar is a great way to help children remember when they need to complete chores (garbage is taken out on Tuesday nights) and assignments (book report due on the Monday the 12th), and upcoming events (Dina’s birthday party on Sunday at 11:30). You can also use the calendar to teach your children to plan their time. For example, if your son’s book report is due on Monday the 12th, then teach him to mark on his calendar to finish reading the book by Wednesday the 7th, allowing ample time to write, illustrate, and edit his report. He’ll learn important skills to prevent him from becoming a “crammer” and last-minute worker as he gets older.
Ages 10 plus: Children in this age group often have a many different activities and responsibilities to keep track of: multiple school assignments, study groups, baby-sitting, sports practice, lawn-mowing jobs and more. Explore together with your child to find the electronic organizer or paper-based calendar system (Day-timer, for example) that will help her be most successful at keeping track of assignments and activities. They are also old enough to maintain their own phone and address books.
5. Motivational charts and rewards.
It’s important to give positive reinforcement to keep your new household organizational system going! Children thrive on their parents’ approval, so be sure to show them how proud you are of their efforts to keep organized and follow the new organizational rules you’ve set up. Hopefully after just a month or two the new system will be integrated into your home routine and you won’t have to continue with the motivational charts anymore.
Ages 3-5: Just give a big smile with a hug and kiss or even a little cookie as a reward. If your daughter needs even more motivation, make a sticker chart for her. Each time she puts something back where it belongs (even if you remind her once or twice) give her a sticker on a chart. When she finishes each line on the chart, give her a small reward, like a sheet of stickers, a super bouncy ball or a magnet. When she finishes the whole chart, give her a bigger reward, like a new pack of markers or a pretty new hair band.
Ages 6-8: This is really the ideal age for sticker charts. You might need bigger prizes for rewards. Give your son a deck of playing cards or a matchbox car for each line he finishes, and a special trip just with Mom or Dad, out for ice cream or a pizza lunch when he finishes the whole chart.
Ages 10 plus: As kids get bigger, so do their reward expectations. A sticker chart might be too babyish for children in this age range, but you can still reward them for sticking with your new organizational program. Add an extra two or three dollars to their weekly allowance for keeping their room and possessions organized. Commend your daughter for a job well done and buy her a special CD or pair of earrings for consistently maintaining her possessions in the organizational system you created.
As you begin implementing organizational improvements with your children, remember to that it’s important to start small. You can’t make all the above changes at once. Pick the area where your daughter is struggling most and start there. Is she late turning in schoolwork? So start by helping her organize her time. Once she’s mastered some time management techniques, you can work on organizing her desk and personal possessions.
Also, be sure to set the example. You have to practice what you preach. If your kitchen counters and bookshelves are cluttered and disorganized, then your children probably won’t be convinced of the importance of being organized. Take the opportunity to make a family project out of becoming more organized. Make a yard sale out of all old toys, furniture, electronic and other the clutter you’re ridding yourselves of. (When I first heard my own four-year-old daughter say to me, “Mommy did you sell that toy?” I felt a little guilty at first. Now I know that I’m actually teaching her great skills and showing her that we need not be too attached to all things only to those that are most important.) Go out for a fun family outing with the proceeds you make.
Rivka Slatkin is the founder of the DECORganize method, combining organizing and decorating for those want to get organized and stay that way! For more information on how the DECORganize method can assist you, go to www.jewishlifeorganized.com.